Sunday, December 29, 2013

I'd Just as Soon be in Boone

I spent the last four days in and around Boone, N.C.  It's a place that feels like home to me as I spent four years at Appalachian State University earning my undergraduate degree and then lived there another three years while serving on staff at a local church.  During those years, I spent a lot of time exploring back roads, curvy roads, and dirt roads, sometimes not knowing where I would end up at the end of the journey.  The roads usually led to new adventures, beautiful views, and places to pause for rest, reflection and thanksgiving.  

This trip I was accompanied by Samuel and his friend Brendan.  We spent the first afternoon riding the Blue Ridge Parkway as we made our way to the town of West Jefferson with no other plan than to visit the Ashe County Cheese factory and store.  It's always interesting to visit the viewing room and see how the cheese is made, but the best part is buying some cheese curds (Samuel calls it "squeaky cheese") and some sharp cheddar hoop cheese. We left with a bag full of goodies.

The boys went snowboarding all day Friday and the rest of the weekend found us taking many different roads and discovering some beautiful places and sights.  My one regret is that I forgot to take my 35mm camera and had to settle for iPhone pictures.  I'll let the following pictures tell the rest of the stories from our many adventures.

Icicles along the parkway.

                                                          ASU ducks walking on water.

                                                     They were slipping, sliding and gliding.

   Samuel and Brendan loved 
climbing on The Rock.

Mast General Store. Love this place.

Church of the Holy Cross, Valle Crucis (est. 1842)

A beautiful hike to Elk River Falls

Grandfather Mountain

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway on our last day. 
Morning clouds over the mountains.

We topped off our trip with a hat and a donut as we made our way home.  
The original Krispy Kreme in Winston-Salem equals a sweet ending to a wonderful weekend.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What Would You Do?

This afternoon found me making a trek to the Raleigh/Durham airport to drop off friends who were flying out to see family for Christmas.  As we made the exit from the interstate and passed the cheap gas sign at Sheetz, I mentioned that I needed to stop there on my way back to fill up my gas tank.  After we said our goodbyes, I did make my way back to Sheetz.

I pulled in beside the pump and began filling the tank, hooking the latch on the nozzle so I didn't have to stand there holding it.  As I was cleaning the windshield, I noticed a man wearing a suit and tie walking around the gas pump area, approaching individuals and engaging them in conversation.  He finally made his way to the last pump where I was parked.

The man began telling me a story.  He said that he and his wife had driven from Nash County and just dropped off his mother-in-law at the airport.  At some point during the journey to Raleigh, the man had lost his debit card.  His gas tank was on empty and he needed help.  He told me he had asked others in the parking lot for help and they had been rude and ugly to him.  He needed to drive only 16 more miles to get to his brother-in-law's house for Christmas.  Could I help?

I finished filling my tank, completed the transaction and asked the man to pull his car up to the pump.  I swiped my credit card and told the man to fill it up.  He said, "No, I only need one gallon.  That will be enough to get me where I need to go."  I insisted that he at least let me put $20 worth of gas in his car.  He said, "No, one gallon is enough."  So, I responded, "How about $10 worth?"  He insisted that he only needed one gallon and he pumped a little over a gallon in his tank, stopped and hung the hose back on the pump.  The total charge was $4.00.

The man then asked me why I was willing to help him.  I responded that I am a Christian and I try to help those who are in need.  He told me that others had ignored his plea for help and had said hateful things to him.  He shook my hand and said, "Thank you for being Christ to me today."  From the car, his wife said, "Bless you."  We said our goodbyes, wished each other a Merry Christmas and went our separate ways.

I must admit that after the conversation with this man ended, I kept waiting for John Quinones of the TV show "What Would You Do" to come walking up to ask me why I had helped this man and his wife.  My answer is simple - there was a need and I could meet it.  Others in the parking lot had refused, probably thinking they were being misled or lied to.  I wanted this man and his wife to know that there is still goodness and kindness in this world.  I didn't care if his story was true or not.

The best part of this story is not that I helped.  I find the miracle of this story to be that the man only said he needed a gallon of gas and that is all he pumped into the tank. I really wanted him to fill the tank but he wouldn't do it.  One gallon of gas and a grateful heart.

In this season of giving, I'm reminded that sometimes the smallest gifts can bring the greatest blessings to both the giver and the receiver.

What would you do?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

20 Things We Should Say More Often

I saw this video during a meeting at work today.  Watch it to the end and take heed to the advice on how to treat others.  What a wonderful world it would be if we would all put these suggestions into practice every day - at work, school, play, church and at home.  I love this little guy.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Uncluttered Life

I'm on a mission to clean out some of the clutter in my life, one closet or dresser drawer at a time.  I've been meaning to get to it for months but the task was put on hold for various reasons.  This past weekend, I found renewed energy and focus to finally start the task.

As with any decision to start a new project, many questions arise.  Where to start? What to keep?  What to throw away? What to donate to a worthy charity?  I decided to start with my clothes closet.

I believe that my closet is a good example of my gift for organization.  Most of the time, my shirts are lined up by short sleeve and long sleeve. Solids are grouped together as are the striped ones.  Flip-flops are in one place, brown shoes together, black shoes together.  Tennis shoes and golf shoes sit side by side.  Sweaters and sweatshirts are arranged on a shelf together.  However, the closet was in disarray for months, but it's back in order now.

Dresser drawers are similar - t-shirts in one, pajamas in one, shorts in another and socks are organized by color, of course.  I'm beginning to think I'm a little OCD.  You think?

Well, don't let my closet and dresser drawers fool you.  There are other places in my little home that are not so organized.  Take all this stuff in the middle of the floor that was once hiding in other places.  There are yearbooks from high school and college.  One box holds many notebooks, complete with all of my notes from Old and New Testament, Systematic Theology and Christian Education classes from my time at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1980s.

Another box holds all of my team planning notebooks from Caswell Youth Conferences, 1996-2001.  One container holds many years worth of youth ministry files. Some boxes are filled with slides and photographs. Two containers hold bill and medical receipts, tax returns, and other financial records related to my mother's care over the past few years.

In my kitchen cabinets there are containers without lids and utensils that I never use. In my closet there were clothes that were only being worn by the hangers.  I've run across clothes in sizes that more closely match my shoe size rather than my hip size.  I had to part with them.

Doing some much need cleaning and clearing out has also made me think about other areas of our lives that may need to be uncluttered.  Perhaps we need to give up some bad habits and take up some good, healthy habits.  Maybe we have found ourselves in a relationship that has become toxic and we need to mend it or end it.  Perhaps our mind is filled with negative thoughts or we find ourselves being too judgmental of others. What is cluttering your everyday life, your thoughts, your soul?

In all my cleaning and clearing, I've tried to focus not so much on what I want to get rid of or throw away (though I've bagged up lots of stuff), but more on what I want to keep.  What will be life-giving for me?  What gives me joy?  What do I really need and what can I do without?

I hope you might consider a cleaning and clearing time for yourself. Organizing your mind, your heart and your life can be done - one thought, one choice, one step at a time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Psalm of Lament

For the last six weeks, I've been participating in a grief group at my church.  The small group was led by Rev. Lauren Efird, Minister of Youth and Congregational Care.  Tonight was our last meeting and I didn't want it to end.  The time has been good for my soul.

The weekly sessions provided intentional time for reflection, talking, crying, singing and writing.  It became a safe place and space to talk about all the feelings that have surfaced since the death of my mother two months ago.  There were various opportunities for faithful remembering, dealing with unfinished business, expressing gratitude and finding hope.

One of the most meaningful times for me was completing the weekly homework assignments which provided a creative outlet for expressing my grief.  One week I created a mixed media piece in an attempt to describe what my grief journey looks and feels like.  Another week I wrote a letter to my mother, expressing my feelings, telling her things I was never able to say, how much I miss her and how my world is different without her.

For the last session, my homework assignment was to write a psalm of lament.  I chose to first spend some time coloring a mandala, which I found to be a very creative way of illustrating my grief experience.  After completing the mandala, I wrote this psalm of lament.

I'm sitting here, O God, in this pile of ashes, waiting for you.
Where are you?
I'm listening for you, God, as I sit here in the darkness.
Do you have anything to say?
You know I want some answers.

I've been sitting among the ashes for a very long time - since I was eleven to be exact.
But you know that, right?
Was it not enough that my father died at a young age?
Was it not enough that my daughter left the world much too soon?
Was it not enough that I watched the cancer slowly take my mother away?
What more do you want?
How much more do you think I can take?
How long must I bear this pain in my soul?
Will this dark night of the soul ever become well with my soul?

All around me is grey and my world smells of death.
I am standing knee-deep in this pile of ashes.
My heart is broken.
I lift my eyes to the skies and all I see is darkness.
Even the stars have grown dim and sometimes it feels as if
  they have left the sky - much like it feels that you have left me
  sitting here alone with these ashes.

Is it okay if I raise my voice at you?
Is it okay if I yell and scream?
Is it okay if I raise my fist to the night sky, to the moon, and to you?
Much like Job, I feel as though you have given me more than my portion of grief.
It's not fair, you know.

Nevertheless, I sit and wait for you.
I trust that you will come and be with me.
I trust that I will let you be present with me.
I trust that the stars will shine brightly again in the night sky.

As I stand knee-deep in the ashes,
 I will wait for the peace that passes all understanding.
I will wait for you to wipe the tears from my eyes,
 to heal my broken heart.

Help me to trust that even when I can't feel your presence (or even want your presence),
  you are here, knee-deep in the ashes with me.
I can only pray that this time of barrenness and darkness
 will be made new in the springtime,
 the time when ashes will be placed on my forehead
 and I will remember that I am yours and you are mine.

One day I will rise from these ashes, and with strength renewed,
 I will soar on wings like eagles,
 I will run and not grow weary,
 I will walk and not be faint.
 I am waiting for that day.

The grief group provided a place and space to grieve, but it also became the catalyst that helped me start writing again.  Stay tuned for more regular posts here. I think Cottonhead Confessions has made a comeback.  Thanks for reading and sharing the journey.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Eulogy for Mama

Marjorie O’Neill Carter was born on March 21, 1926 in Stokes County, N.C. to the late Vera Berry Carter and Bill Carter, Sr., better known to us as Monk and Tom. She was born in a small red house, a company house of the Pine Hall Brickyard where Tom worked as a foreman. Her brother, Bill, Jr. was born there two years later. Tom lost his job due to the Great Depression and moved the family to Reidsville to work at the American Tobacco Company. Mama attended 1st – 8th grades at Wentworth School and graduated from Reidsville High School in 1944. She attended King’s Business College in Greensboro for one year and then went to work in the payroll department at Fieldcrest Mills.

She met the love of her life, Ben Rush, Jr. during her childhood years.  When Ben first saw her, he told someone, “That’s the girl I am going to marry.”  While he was serving in the Navy during World War II, he sent an engagement ring home to his parents and they gave the ring to Marjorie.  When he returned home, they married in October 1946.  They waited seven years to have children.  Ben Rush, III was born in 1953 and when he was two, they moved to Rock Hill, S.C. as our father got a job with Celanese and Mama went to work at M. Lowenstein making the sum of $58 a week.  Making that kind of money, perhaps they decided they could afford another child and I came along in 1957.
Our life together on Beverly Drive was filled with good neighbors and friends, where adults gathered in the evenings after dinner to talk as children rode their bikes, played ball or hopscotch on the sidewalk.  Our best memories are centered on a river cabin where we spent many weekend retreats with the McKenna family and Willard’s family.  We were often joined by other family members and friends, creating memories for a lifetime.  Our time there found us fishing, boating, swimming, water-skiing, playing cards and eating good food.  It was at that river cabin where Mama, Ben and I spent our last day with our father and her husband, Ben Rush, Jr.  On the evening of September 14, 1969, he died of a massive heart attack in our home.  Mama recently described his death to me as “the shock of her life.”  She was a widow at the age of 43.   When I then asked her to describe my father, she said, “He was salt of the earth and he was the love of my life.”  
Six months after our father’s death, we moved back to Reidsville as Mama needed the support of her parents.  I once questioned the wisdom of that decision and how uprooted I felt in leaving all that was familiar to me and to Ben in Rock Hill.  Mama told me that she thought it was the right decision and that she did the best she could.  And sometimes, doing the best that we can is enough.

Mama went on to marry two other men, Juke Tilley and Frank Lane.  We have often joked about how long her name became due to being married three times and how in the world would we ever get Marjorie O’Neill Carter Rush Tilley Lane on a tombstone when she died.
My mother experienced many seasons of grief and sorrow in her life. She cared for both of her parents as their health declined.  She buried them, along with three husbands, and a grand-child.  My mother has known the grief that comes when the doctor says, “you have cancer.”  After the first diagnosis in 2001, she persevered through surgery to remove a kidney, then breast cancer surgery, eight rounds of chemo and six weeks of daily radiation.  She became a survivor.  Most recently, she heard the words “you have lung cancer and it has spread to the bones.”  There would be no treatment or cure this time. But my mother faced the journey through cancer courageously.  She dealt with more grief and sorrow in her long life than anyone should ever have to, but she persevered and taught us many lessons along the way.
One recent day as my mother and I talked about her recent diagnosis she said, “I have no regrets in my life.  I hold no malice towards anyone.  I looked after my parents the best I could.  I raised two good children.  And all is right with me and my Lord.”  My mother found her way to hope, healing and peace despite the devastating news that this cancer would lead to her death.  She also found her way to recognizing the need to give forgiveness where necessary and to receive the forgiveness that was offered to her by others.
I also asked my mother what had been her greatest joy in life.  She smiled and said, “My first love, Ben Rush, my children and my grand-children.  I can only hope that the time we spent with her and our good memories of her will be our joy in the days to come without her presence here with us and that we will continue to make her proud by the way we live our lives.
One thing I will remember most about my mother is her honesty.  Sometimes she could be brutally honest and if you had thin skin, you could easily get your feelings hurt.  She said what she thought about your hair (how long or short it was, what color it was).  She would let you know if the clothes you were wearing were suitable or appropriate for the occasion.  I thought about wearing pants to this funeral service, but I heard the voice of Marge in my head that said, “You should not wear pants to a funeral. You should wear a dress or a skirt.”  And so today, I put on a skirt in honor of my mother.
We will think of Marge in her Alfred Dunner outfits, her Miss Elaine nightgowns and robes and I will never again smell the scent of Estee Lauder perfume without thinking of my mother.  Mama was also a lover of all things chocolate, especially in the form of a milkshake from Char-Grill.  Her drink of choice was a Coca-Cola, but it had to be in a small bottle or a small can, which she referred to as “three burps worth.”

Mama was the crossword puzzle queen.  In days past she worked the daily crossword puzzle in the paper and worked her way through countless puzzle books.
Mama had a wonderful sense of humor.  During a time in the hospital for a lung biopsy, the nurse taking her health history asked, “Do you drink any alcohol?”  Mama replied, “No, but if you have some, I’ll drink it right now.”  On the evening of September 13, Ben, Carole and I were with Mama at Mayview because she was having a difficult time.  She looked at us, perhaps wondering why the three of us were all there at the same time.  She finally asked, “Am I supposed to be dying?”
I pray that the good memories we all hold of Marge will be our comfort and joy as we remember her as mother, grandma, sister, mother-in-law, aunt, cousin or friend.  I also am thankful that Mama is at peace now, no longer in pain, and no longer confused.  She is no longer weary or exhausted.  Cancer did not have the last word or the victory.  Cancer is not sovereign.  The good news for us today is that God is sovereign.  Because of her faith, her strength has been renewed and she has been made whole and she is at rest.
As we gather here today with grieving hearts, there is a word of hope for us as well.  Let us not forget the story of God’s attentiveness to our pain and grief.  Let us not forget the dependability of God and the love God has for us.  Those who remember this will receive new strength, power and life.  As we wait and trust in the God who loves us, may we find the ability to meet the challenges we will face in this life and run and not grow weary, even as our hearts grieve.
I hope we can find comfort in knowing that Mama has experienced the ultimate healing in death, is pain-free and at rest.  I cling fast to the words of Romans 8:37-39: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I hope we find comfort in believing that Mama has been reunited in heaven with Monk and Tom, with the love of her life Ben Rush, and that she was met by a snaggle-toothed seven year old Bethany who greeted her with, “I love you Grandma, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.”  Perhaps they may even be enjoying a magic carpet ride, “soaring, tumbling, free-wheeling in an endless diamond sky” in the beautiful, whole new world of heaven.